Ray Markey. The myths surrounding penalty rates.

Dec 22, 2015

The article below by Professor Ray Markey was posted before the release of the recent Productivity Commission Report on penalty rates.

Following the release of the report, Professor Markey commented as follows:

‘The Productivity Commission report presents no new evidence for increased employment from reduced penalty rates. Mainly there are theoretical economic arguments and modelling based on it. Time use survey data is very selectively cited and dated anyway since the last survey was in 2006. It clearly shows that people prefer weekends for being with family and friends and does not refer to studies showing it is difficult to make up during the week for this weekend time being lost due to work. The one new argument in the report is very interesting, namely that the onus of proof about the impact of reduced penalty rates on employment should be reversed i.e. employers shouldn’t have to prove this is the case to get changes – clearly an admission of a lack of evidence.

It is tiring to hear penalty rates linked with productivity as the minister responsible, Senator Cash, did on radio this morning. It has nothing to do with productivity and neither the Productivity Commission nor the main employer submissions made this claim. Productivity increases would require increased output relative to inputs (labour). Reducing penalty rates will increase employer income and potentially profits, but it is inconceivable how it affects productivity positively. If the argument that employment will increase as a result of reduced penalty rates is true, it may have a negative impact on productivity. Cheaper labour costs certainly provide incentives for employers not to engage in innovation to increase productivity and this is the trap for low wage economies such as New Zealand, where they struggle with lower productivity than Australia and lower wages. Reducing penalty rates, therefore, is a distraction from the Prime Minister’s focus on an innovation agenda.’


In the current review of modern awards before the Fair Work Commission, employers are challenging the level of penalty rates. At the same time, the Productivity Commission says excessive penalty rates for Sundays reduce hours worked, mean unemployment is higher than it needs to be, and reduce options for businesses and consumers. It wants Sunday penalty rates in some sectors to be set at the Saturday rate.

A penalty rate for Sunday work was first implemented in Australia for working “unsocial” hours in 1919. The 1947 ‘Weekend Penalty Rates Case’ expanded penalty rates to Saturdays, while Sundays were set at a rate of double time. Later decisions specified that workers would need to be compensated for the loss of opportunity for family life and social time resulting from weekend work.

More than 60 years on, employers argue the world has changed. It has, but many of the arguments employers make are not supported by the evidence.

Myth 1: Given extended trading hours, it’s no longer abnormal for people to work weekends

Most employees still do not work unsocial hours. According to the Australian Work and Life Index, 38 per cent of workers work unsocial hours; only 32.2 per cent of workers work weekends and 18.9 per cent of workers work evenings after 9pm regularly. These figures include the 13.1 per cent of workers who work both evenings and weekends regularly.

Myth 2: It’s only young single people that work weekends.

While being single with no children is more common than other family types among these workers, they are not a majority: there are also many couples both with and without children, and sole parents.

Women are also more likely than men to work weekends. HILDA data indicates that only 22 per cent of male and 21 per cent of female weekend workers were dependent students; in other words, 78 per cent of all weekend workers were not dependent and pay their own bills.

Myth 3: The disadvantages of working weekends are only bad for those who work very long hours.

Employers argue that the adverse effects associated with working weekends are only relevant to those who work very long hours, and that the days and times themselves are no longer relevant, either because people no longer engage in the activities which previous decisions attempted to protect, or because these activities can be made up on other days and at other times.

But those who work on weekends do so at the sacrifice of time with friends and family, time which cannot be simply made up through time spent at other times during the week. This is particularly acute on Sundays, which remain a time for spending time with family. In spite of claims to the contrary, the differentiation between Saturdays and Sundays remains relevant in modern Australian society.

In general, the recompense of penalty rates is the key reason for willingly working weekends; with far fewer doing so to meet their own flexibility needs. However, the experience of the Work Choices era, and the importance and power of employer expectation, does suggest that many employees would not, in the absence of penalty rates, be able to avoid weekend work due to fear of losing their jobs, and indeed employees being forced to work weekends for no extra pay seems the most likely consequence of removing penalty rates.

Myth 4: Those who work in industries that pay penalty rates are not low paid.

Many workers on penalty rates are among the low paid. According to the Australian Work and Life Index, 37.8 per cent of workers who work weekends only and receive penalty rates rely on these to meet household expenses. This increases to 48.8 per cent for those working both evenings and weekends, and 52.2 per cent for Sundays only.

Myth 5: Reducing or eliminating penalty rates would increase employment.

The empirical evidence for increased employment as a result of reducing penalty rates is non-existent. Employer arguments have been based essentially on economic theory, which is merely hypothesis in the absence of empirical confirmation. What may be relevant in terms of the impact of wages on employment is that none of the available empirical evidence suggests minimum wages have a significant effect on net employment, a point reiterated by the Productivity Commission.

While some studies do suggest a substitution effect, this would be a matter of balancing one set of employed workers against another — older workers versus youth. However, a number of studies suggest no effect at all, and some suggest a positive effect.

Given the evidence, it is difficult to see any benefits likely to accrue from the abolition or reduction of penalty rates for employees, employment levels or greater availability of services to the public.

Professor Ray Markey is Director of the Centre for Workforce Futures.
This article was originally published on The Conversation on 2 December 2015.

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